The people of Gilgit Baltistan need massive infrastructure development, social development and access to the main markets in order to come out of their isolation and on the road to prosperity. One of the most important things to realize is that the mountain habitat has become even more vulnerable due to climate change and extreme weather patterns.

NOREEN HAIDER, THE NATION


Whenever I have had the chance to visit Gilgit Baltistan, I always feel immensely fortunate and blessed to be able to come and see the beautiful piece of heaven on Earth. Gilgit Baltistan is not only rich in natural beauty but also a land of great opportunity. It is indeed one of the most naturally endowed places in the world and rich in so much amazing resources yet it is very unfortunate that the Gilgit Baltistan has never been given its due share of development and has always been exploited by the various governments in Pakistan . The region has long remained deprived and so many generations have passed on without seeing any real change for the better there.

The Karakorum Highway was indeed a major development project in Gilgit and it did have a remarkable effect in joining the region to rest of Pakistan but even that cannot be called as development for the whole region. Except for some urban areas most of Gilgit Baltistan is largely underdeveloped and the people are still a long way from getting any civil amenities of any kind. The population is naturally scattered as is the case in most mountainous regions and people dwell in remote areas where they continue to live in their ancient habitat. The subsequent governments have been unwilling or incapacitated to do much for bringing prosperity to the people of this beautiful region.

The people of Gilgit Baltistan need massive infrastructure development, social development and access to the main markets in order to come out of their isolation and on the road to prosperity. One of the most important things to realize is that the mountain habitat has become even more vulnerable due to climate change and extreme weather patterns. There are only two available strategies for managing climate change, mitigation and adaptation. The risks have to be minimized and mitigated and the people have to be supported for adapting to the changing climate realities like floods, GLOF (Glacier Lake Outburst Flooding), landslides and flash flooding. In the changing weather patterns it is also extremely important to have a strong social security network and dynamic disaster management system in GB for reducing the vulnerabilities of the local people.

In the wake of the recent floods in Indus and Shigar river and the overflowing of the hill torrents in the whole of Gilgit Baltistan and especially Skardu, several areas have been completely cut off from the mainland and major roads and bridges have been damaged but the government in GB does not have any relief mechanism in place to reach out to people and is totally dependent on Pak Army for the rescue and relief of people.

Another important factor contributing to the underdevelopment of people in GB is that the livelihood of most of the people is dependent on small scale farming. The farmers grow fruits and dry fruits like apricots, apples, cherries, walnuts and almonds that thrive abundantly in the region but the farmers do not have access to the new seeds, extension services, new techniques, fertilizers, pesticides or any of the modern techniques in farming. They still rely on the old and archaic methods which is the reason for low yield of their produce. They also have absolutely no facility of storage of the product even for the shortest amount of time or any means of reaching the main markets. Also there is no branding or certification of the product and the middle men and clever vendors buy their anonymous product at very cheap rates whereas the same product is sold at exorbitant rates in the main urban centers of Pakistan.

In order to reduce the poverty and vulnerability of the mountain farmers it is extremely important that the government must pay full attention to the farming sector and make it a top priority agenda. In order to improve the quality of life of the mountain farmers in GB the government must focus on developing better infrastructure, providing storage facilities, roads, access to markets and agriculture extension services to the mountain farmers. There should be a new policy developed for mountain farmers and implemented where the mountain produce is certified, branded and labelled so that it is recognized and identified as Mountain Product and the region is also recognized for its produce. This would be a major step in enhancing the quality and price of the product and would ensure that the produce is recognized as the certified product from Gilgit Baltistan. It is high time that the exploitation of the people of this region is stopped and they are given their due respect and recognition.

The mountain products like the fruits and dry fruits are highly sought after product and they fetch a very high price in the main fruit and dry fruit markets in Pakistan but the poor farmers are always deprived of the share of the profit and they are forced to sell their produce for a pittance. The government must pay attention to the welfare of the people and improving their lives and livelihood.

The deprivation of the whole region has given way to unrest and agitation at places and there are several sub-nationalist movements also that are currently running in Gilgit Baltistan. It is but rational that the best way to tackle the situation is through ensuring the rights of the people and doing practical work to eliminate poverty.

After the recent floods, it is abundantly obvious that the government of GB does not have the means or the capacity to deal with the situation and the people have very little hope from the GB government in terms of reaching out for help. However the Federal Government of Pakistan has all the requisite resources and all the power of the state to tackle any situation and provide the requisite resources when and wherever required.

I believe that it is very obvious that a strong Governor in Gilgit Baltistan as the representative of the Federal Government of Pakistan can play a very vital role in tackling the current emergency situation for rescue and relief as well as in the development of Gilgit Baltistan in the medium and long term.

The government of Pakistan had appointed Chaudry Birjees Tahir as an interim governor till the formation of the new government which is now in place. However he is not a local and has limited knowledge of the ground realities and local dynamics. The most likely and most suitable candidate for the post of the Governor of GB would be (retd) Brigadier Masood Ali Khan who, according to various reliable sources has the full support and backing of the military establishment. He is from Gilgit city and has very high credentials as well as a spotless military career which has made him the most likely candidate. He could be the best person to deal with the flood situation as he has had the requisite experience and the liaison with the forces and he can later lead the rehabilitation work as well.

Only a very strong and dynamic governor with the complete backing of both the federal government as well as the military establishment can have the capacity to tackle the diverse issues in Gilgit Baltistan today and also get the requisite funds generated to work for the development of the area. Brigadier Masood is completely non-controversial and this is the quality needed to ensure that the governor would be able to deal with various factions and sects which exist in the region and its diverse issues.

Also the name of Akbar Tabaan was also floated but in the present situation and changing times a highly educated person is needed in the governor’s house who is able to understand the changing and shifting climate change patterns, economics and the strategic importance of the region now and in coming times and a low educated person like Akbar Tabaan would be of little use.

The Prime Minister should appoint the new governor without any further delay as the situation in Gilgit Baltistan is very unsatisfactory and a dynamic person is needed to ensure that it is brought under control and people are secured before the onset of winters. Brigadier Masood has the dynamism to visit all the troubled spots and devise and make the right strategy to get things in motion immediately. The time to act is as early as yesterday and there are just four months left for building bridges, repairing of the roads, ensuring food security and repairing blocked waterways. The only way to do it is by a leader who is fearless and ready to lead from the front. This work cannot be done sitting in Islamabad or behind a desk in the Chief Minister’s office.

We have seen several consequent incompetent governments there in the recent years which have delivered nothing and had complete inertia. The last Chief Minister Mehdi Shah stayed in Islamabad most of the time and did not even bother to be in the office as a formality. The governor too was a mere ceremonial figure and did nothing.

Time has come to change this half-hearted attitude towards Gilgit Baltistan. The strategic importance of the region has no doubt increased many folds due to the Pak-China Economic Corridor but then efforts also must be done that the real issues of the common man in GB should also be addressed along with the mega development of the road structure. The people need clean drinking water, sanitation services, schools, access to markets, health care facilities and communication. The government must make sure that they are also provided the facilities of modern day life and treated as equal citizens of the state of Pakistan.